I recently saw, again, after many years, the Roman Polanski film Rosemary’s Baby, from the brilliant book by Ira Levin, a master of showing not telling in the realist/documentarian style. Levin’s books, with their detail left to speak for itself, with their deft characterization in a few extraordinarily suggestive strokes, with their observance of the unities and sure, swift plotting, are great models for how to write a novel. If you go off to take an MFA in writing, these days, you probably won’t be asked to read Levin (too “low brow,” LOL), but you WILL BE taught to do what Levin does flawlessly–the modern formula that one has to master and then deviate from in order to push the form forward. It is a tribute to Levin’s GENIUS as a novelist that, according to Polanski, the script hewed very, very closely to the book and practically wrote itself. Astonishingly, Levin’s novels (Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, The Stepford Wives) are BOTH brilliantly crafted AND were extremely popular. Reading one of them is a Master Class in novel writing. In this respect, Levin reminds me of Robert Frost, who was also very popular but whose work was OFTEN more subtle and sophisticated and better crafted than that of the more supposedly intellectual and high-brow poets, his contemporaries, who dismissed him (people like Robert Lowell).
But back to the film. Few films from that period stand up today. This one does. It’s brilliant, from beginning to end–truly an astonishing piece of work. The attention to detail in this film is unsurpassed for its time, and it repays very, very close “reading.” It’s a masterpiece, full of little bits of social commentary and dark humor that are easy to miss, such as the fact that Rosemary is reading, on the sofa, in an early scene, the autobiography of Sammy Davis, Jr., who dabbled in the whole stupid, exploitative LA sex magick scene of the day, or the fact that Rosemary’s husband controllingly takes a book away from her and happens to place it on the bookshelves on top of a copy of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. A LOT of cinema after this film owes its existence to it, but few films that stole heavily from it come even close to its power.
It’s also one of the greatest feminist films ever made. And yes, there is a terrible irony in that.
BTW, if you missed the superb first novel by Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves, treat yourself. It’s gripping and disturbing, and I couldn’t put it down. I read it straight through from beginning to end and couldn’t stop thinking about it in the weeks that followed. A great read.